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Around the NL Central: Pittsburgh Pirates offseason in review

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Around the NL Central: Pittsburgh Pirates offseason in review

The Cubs have a target on their back.

They enter 2016 as the odds-on favorite to win the World Series and manager Joe Maddon will have them embracing the expectations.

The Cubs committed more than $275 million to free agents this winter, taking the baseball world by storm with the Jason Heyward signing while also bolstering the pitching staff by bringing Trevor Cahill back and acquiring John Lackey and Adam Warren.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs also said goodbye to former franchise icon Starlin Castro to make room for free agent Ben Zobrist, shipping the 25-year-old shortstop to the New York Yankees.

With another month-and-a-half until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, there is still plenty of time for the Cubs to make more moves, with trade rumors swirling around Jorge Soler and the possibility of the Cubs adding another top-of-the-rotation arm.

But as it stands right now, the Cubs already look like an improved team entering 2016.

As the new year approaches, let's take a look how the rest of the National League Central is shaping up.

Manager: Clint Hurdle (Record w/Pirates: 431-379)
2015 record: 98-64
New additions: SP Jon Niese, SP Ryan Vogelsong, RP Juan Nicasio, RP Yoervis Medina, 1B/C John Jaso, OF/1B Jake Goebbert
Key losses: 1B Pedro Alvarez, 2B Neil Walker, SP J.A. Happ, SP A.J. Burnett, SP Charlie Morton, RP Joakim Soria, 3B Aramis Ramirez, 1B/OF Travis Snider, RP Joe Blanton, RP Antonio Bastardo, 1B/OF Corey Hart, 1B Travis Ishikawa
X-Factor: Gregory Polanco
Biggest question: Can they keep up with the Cubs and Cardinals?
Projected lineup:

1. Gregory Polanco - RF
2. Josh Harrison - 3B
3. Andrew McCutchen - CF
4. Starling Marte - LF
5. John Jaso - 1B
6. Francisco Cervelli - C
7. Jordy Mercer - SS
8. Alen Hanson - 2B
DL: Jung-ho Kang

Projected rotation:

1. Gerrit Cole
2. Francisco Liriano
3. Jon Niese
4. Ryan Vogelsong
5. Jeff Locke

Outlook:

The Pirates finished a game better than the Cubs last year, earning homefield advantage for the one-game playoff. But, for the second year in a row, they ran into the best pitcher on the planet (Madison Bumgarner in 2014, Jake Arrieta in '15) and wound up failing to score in a winner-take-all format.

Obviously, the Pirates are going to try to avoid the wild-card crapshoot in 2016, but they're going to have their hands full with the arrival of the Cubs and the continued success of the Cardinals.

[RELATED - Around the NL Central: Cincinnati Reds offseason in review]

The Buccos have most of their key pieces returning from 2015, including manager Clint Hurdle (one of the best in the game), perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and starter Gerrit Cole (one of the top young pitchers in the game).

But they have lost quite a few starters - Pedro Alvarez (27 HR, 77 RBI), homegrown second baseman Neil Walker (17 HR, 71 RBI), plus pitchers A.J. Burnett (3.18 ERA), J.A. Happ (1.85 ERA) and Charlie Morton, who combined for 60 starts last season. And dynamic Korean rookie Jung-ho Kang will miss the start of the season after breaking his leg on Chris Coghlan's takeout slide late last season.

As of the turn of the year, the Pirates only picked up a couple replacements for their departed players - starter Jon Niese (acquired from the Mets in the Walker trade), 38-year-old pitcher Ryan Vogelsong (4.63 ERA over the last three seasons) and first baseman John Jaso, who gets on base a ton (.361 career OBP), but doesn't offer much in the way of power (37 homers in 550 career games).

[MORE - Around the NL Central: Milwaukee Brewers offseason in review]

Francisco Liriano is a nice starter behind Cole, but the rest of the rotation is a bit unpredictable. The lineup still boasts Gregory Polanco (coming off a stellar second half), McCutchen and Starling Marte and the Pirates are hoping for a bounceback season from Josh Harrison. But the lineup behind them isn't exactly deep, even with Michael Morse and Sean Rodriguez leading a solid bench.

The Pirates have grown into one of the premier orgainzations in baseball, but they're going to have a tough time even matching last year's success and keeping pace in the NL Central.

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

Ozzie Guillen and David DeJesus join Leila Rahimi on Wednesday's podcast. After Tuesday's game-winning hit and second self-inflicted Gatorade bath the guys wonder if anyone has more fun on the field than Yolmer Sanchez. Jim DeShaies joins the conversation and brings Javy Baez to the table.

Plus, Manny Mania continues to swirl in Chicago. Finally, what should be the White Sox plan for calling up their top prospects?

Listen to the full Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast right here: